WASHINGTON, July 17 (UPI) -- A noted Yale scholar sees recurrent historical patterns at work in al Qaida's war on the United States.
"It's clear that (Osama) bin Laden's problem is us, not any particular policy of ours," Donald Kagan told United Press International.
In the weeks following Sept. 11, explanations for the attacks broke down into two general categories. One school of thought pointed to a specific set of grievances expressed by bin Laden: U.S. bases in his native Saudi Arabia, U.S. sanctions against Iraq, and U.S. support for Israel. Others drew on the "clash of civilizations" model rooted in the work of Bernard Lewis, an emeritus professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, and developed by Harvard's Samuel Huntington. Kagan thinks Lewis and Huntington are on the right track.
He distanced himself from what he said is Huntington's apparent belief that extremism is inherent in Islam. "But it is necessarily inherent in these Islamic extremists," Kagan said. "Lewis I think is dead-on and has a more nuanced view of the thing."
It's "totally false," he said, to believe that the United States can escape the wrath of radical Islamists if it minds its own business and makes some policy adjustments.
Kagan said the United States now finds itself in a position similar to Britain's from the 18th century almost until the outbreak of World War II. Both are liberal, commercial and democratic states that have traditionally been protected by geography and strong navies and haven't had to be constantly ready for war against continental neighbors.
"States like ours are traditionally of the view that if we leave people alone, they'll leave us alone," Kagan said. "Now, that hasn't happened to either of us. We keep getting into wars. How does this happen? Is it because we're rotten, aggressive guys? No.
"Bin Laden and the Islamic movement are aimed at the West and the United States as the dominant power. We are in the way of an attempt to undo the modern world -- a system of politics and culture that are hostile to the medieval views of the Islamic extremists."
Societies such as the United States and imperial Britain are "constantly getting in the way of people who don't like the way the world is ordered," the professor said. "We generally like the way the world is ordered, because it's to our advantage. Others want to change it, and we don't want them to. And the only way you're going to be able to deal with them is either deter them or beat them."
The historian and classicist rejected the comparison, which is sometimes advanced, between the United States and the Roman Empire.
"The Romans were fundamentally different from us," he said. "The Romans created their empire by hundreds of years of continuous conquest in which their military power in each case was the decisive element. And when the Romans conquered somebody, they imposed upon them conditions that ranged from absolute subjection to various grades of opportunities, but always at Rome's discretion.
"Rome took from them wealth and military commitments. There can be no greater difference between the Roman Empire and what you might want to call the American hegemony. The only thing that's similar was that the Romans felt they didn't want anybody even potentially threatening their situation. And so they made either alliances or friendships with states, which -- at their discretion -- they chose to honor by fighting.
"But the truth of the matter is, it's not a helpful example," Kagan said, returning to the British precedent.
"The Crimean War was the product of Britain's concern that if the Russians were allowed to win it, Russia would soon be in the Mediterranean. They rightly suspected Russian motives of becoming a Mediterranean power and challenging British interests in that area."
Britain "preferred not to get involved with that. Most of the time the British worked at keeping the Russians out through deterrence, and usually that worked. But in this case, it didn't."
Kagan said World War I is a prime example of Britain, as the world's pre-eminent power, being forced into war.
"The clearest thing in the world is that Kaiser Wilhelm pushed German policy in the direction that meant to challenge British command of the sea," the professor said. "And that meant to challenge British security. There was nothing special that the British were doing that was annoying the Germans. They were just in the way! Germany needed to become a world power. The British were No. 1, and they wanted to be No. 1.
"And, of course, you come right back with Hitler, who had no grievance against the British, who wanted to cut a deal with the British. He thought they should properly be on his side. But in any case, they should stand aside. But that would have meant allowing him to dominate the European continent and be in a position to invade England if he wanted to. So finally even the Brits figured out they better not let him do that."
Now the United States stands in the way of al Qaida.
"Nothing will do -- for them -- except, in the best of cases, to destroy us and everything that we stand for. But they probably would settle for terrorizing us to the degree that we would stand aside from the rest of the world and let them do what they want to do.
"There's no escaping it," Kagan said. "As long as those guys are in business and unterrorized by us, we're going to have this kind of trouble with them, because they have found ways to get at us that were not available before."